Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The House of the Devil


College sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) has tired of living in the dorm with a slovenly, inconsiderate roommate and decides to look for her own place.  She finds a perfect apartment but needs to round up the funds to secure it.  On campus she spots a flyer requesting a babysitter and arranges to take the job on the night of a lunar eclipse.

Soon after arriving at the stately house deep in the countryside Samantha learns that she’s been brought there under false pretenses.  Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), an exceedingly polite older man, explains that it is not a child she is to oversee but an elderly woman who will probably stay holed up in her room.  He apologizes for misrepresenting the situation and makes up for it by agreeing to pay $400 for four hours of work.  

Samantha is aware that something is amiss in this arrangement, but the money will more than cover her first month’s rent.  How can she turn that down?  Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) pleads for her to leave, as surely this offer is too good to be true, but Samantha is steadfast and settles in as her friend and the couple who hired her depart.

Media reports and urban legends of Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse were widespread in the 1980s.  That’s one of the reasons why writer-director Ti West has chosen that decade as the setting for THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  The film opens with presumably spurious numbers for the high percentage of people who believed that devil worship and Satanic rituals were a problem at the time.  Whether or not Samantha puts stock in such reports, they’re likely to be in the back of her mind while alone in a creepy house.  Having been less than upfront about the job, Mr. Ulman suggests as much when making an oblique reference to those rumors and for his prospective hire’s need to be careful while he tries to put Samantha at ease.
The time period is also important because West is interested in exploring that era’s horror film style.  Although the camerawork and longer takes are not techniques exclusive to ‘80s fright fests--HALLOWEEN and ROSEMARY’S BABY seem like reference points too--a distinctly retro approach marks THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL as quite different from its contemporaries.  First and foremost, West masterfully sustains suspense as Samantha explores the home and gradually becomes worried that she is in danger.  The unsettling tone lingers heavily in the air and is all the more potent because the payoff is withheld until very late.

Donahue is effective as a stressed out coed who makes a regrettable but understandable decision.  The casualness of her performance, most visible as she dances around the house listening to The Fixx, grounds the film and keeps it stabilized even when what transpires becomes more unhinged from a typical night of caretaking. The restraint in performance extends to the others as well.  Gerwig’s amusing turn as the more rebellious friend turned voice of reason reflects how someone might respond in these circumstances than how a horror movie character would behave.  Like a spider spinning a trap, Noonan’s meek and eerie portrayal chills because of how he effortlessly he captures his prey.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL mimics the aesthetics of ‘80s horror films, but this is no mere case of imitative homage.  Laden with dread and executed with a musician’s sense of timing, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is better than a substantial number of the films it resembles.

Grade: A-

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